Ersatz Frenchness

Greg, the Man of No Man Walks Alone, once told me he couldn’t stand the fake “fallen noble” look of Arnys, which was once a niche shop on Paris’ Left Bank and is now a minor legend in the fashion firmament. It is known more widely than is what it was known for, so it stands for many things now that it did not or should not have while it was still a quaint, shockingly expensive store one could visit, as I often did. 

It was, as I write in my manuscript, the French exception made physical, an expression of Gallic bravado that denied Waterloo and Brummell and postulated a wardrobe for a modern Enlightenment intellectual, all foppish faux-Bohemia, bound buttonholes, flared jackets, frogmouth pockets, turnback cuffs.

Of course, anyone who claims to be an intellectual – let alone claims to dress like an intellectual – is the worst sort of insufferable poseur, the kind who definitely should be spelled with a “u.”

Nonetheless, while it existed, it was a charming, mostly harmless (except to François Fillon) backwater, dressing the gauche caviar from François Mitterrand (hats) to Yves Saint-Laurent (custom suits), and selling an idea of foppish Frenchness to foreigners. 

Philippe Trétiack points out that Arnys made itself a standard-bearer of invented French style only in its last few decades of existence, as the classic British clothing that it used to sell fell out of style. Berluti acquired it knowing that an intangible – the Arnys mythos – can be easily redefined without losing its mythic status.  

I was reminded of all this coming across a listing on a watch sale site for a watch from L. Leroy, another little-known brand bound up with French identity. So bound up, in fact, that in the 2000s Arnys put out a catalog featuring Leroy watches and, apparently, sold some of them, since this watch’s seller notes that he in fact purchased his watch from Arnys. 

Like Arnys, Leroy (now completely domiciled and made in Switzerland) has laid more claim to a distinctive Frenchness than it may be able to deliver. It has a glorious heritage that cannot help recall a much better known watchmaker of distantly French origin, Breguet.  Like Abraham-Louis Breguet, the first M. Leroy was an 18th-century Parisian watchmaker. He supposedly invented the first automatic watch (that is, a watch powered by the wearer’s movements, not requiring winding), and even shared it with Breguet. Like Breguet, Leroy provided watches to the household of Emperor Napoleon (Breguet supposedly invented the first wristwatch for Napoleon’s sister in law the Queen of Naples, while Leroy became the Emperor’s official watchmakers). Where Dumas gave Breguets to his most plutocratic or larcenous fictional characters in The Count of Monte Cristo, his real life character Ali Pasha actually did buy watches from Leroy. Both watchmakers were saved from gradual decline when wealthy multibrand conglomerates acquired them to make them into luxury flagships (Swatch in the case of Breguet, Festina a few years later in the case of Leroy).   

The relaunched Leroy’s watches even echoed the design features of Breguet watches: many even used Breguet numerals, a beautiful italicized font Abraham-Louis Breguet supposedly invented. The Leroy-Arnys watch also has the engine-turned texturing known as guilloché work that’s been a house style of Breguet for decades, as well as a beautifully useless moonphase complication in the Breguet style: the moonphase window itself is shaped like a crescent moon, its bottom edge like puffy clouds for the moon on the dial to rise and set from. 

Just as Berluti didn’t just recraft Arnys, Festina didn’t just re-engineer watches: they remade the heritage of their newly acquired heritage brands into something more palatable for broader international markets. For Berluti, that meant turning Arnys into a half-memory of craft and bespoke, instead of a strangely captivating niche of colorful styles, clothes and textures. A national identity is difficult for a brand in the absence of existing received ideas. After relaunch, Leroy walked back its announcement that it would validate its heritage by bringing watchmaking back to France, realizing that the “made in Switzerland” brand was essential for a watch name that would be completely new to most customers. Just as for most men, French style suggests either ladies’ couture or Pierre Cardin tackiness, or at best the monochromatic manorexia of Hedi Slimane’s clothes for Dior Homme years ago. Not Arnys’ invented experiments, the noblesse déchue look Greg rightly decried.  Who but foreigners or snobs would want to dress like that? Yet all of us who have ersatz identities can’t help the fascination, the fascination of an instantly created heritage, of belonging to some centuries-old distinguished family line. What son of diaspora like me could say no? God bless you, watch seller, for giving me the opportunity to remember how easily we can create such seductive identities. To wear Arnys would mark me as alien even more than any accent, to buy a watch like that even more a fool, having learned I can barely afford even one foolish habit, with all of its affectations. 

We all want to belong, somewhere. So often the purchase we think will make us belong only sets us farther apart.

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